Netta Avineri and Jesse Harasta on their edited volume, Metalinguistic Communities

Last fall, we published a co-edited volume entitled Metalinguistic Communities: Case Studies of Agency, Ideology, and Symbolic Uses of Language.  Bringing together ten ethnographic case studies from a range of global settings, we explored how people build metalinguistic communities defined not by use of a language, but primarily by shared language ideologies and symbolic practices about the language.

This blog post offers us an opportunity to reflect upon the process of creating this book and ask questions that are often lost in the minutiae of editing and writing, questions like: why was this project important? What were we doing that was different from usual practices in publishing? What guideposts can we leave for others trying to do similar work?  From these discussions, we have recognized the importance of the intertwined nature of ethos and process.  Even while editing the book we spoke about this and therefore included our guiding principles in the book introduction. In hindsight, our perspective on these issues has broadened. There are three core themes that have emerged, at times consciously planned and at times organically manifested: (1) the crucial importance of egalitarian collaboration; (2) the centrality of an open process; and (3) the value of interdisciplinary conversations.

Collaborative Work

As is common in anthropology, each of us began our independent work on these topics in our own individual ethnographic research, coming to parallel conclusions about the role of language in community-building. Though we may be energized by the relationships and understandings that immersive ethnography can afford, we have found the research process itself can at times feel solitary in nature. Out of this dilemma, we sought out a collaborative relationship from the inception of this project. 

The project began with a conference conversation, and like so many of that breed, it was a bit awkward at first.  At the 2018 National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) quadrennial conference, Jesse attended a panel Netta had co-organized with Sarah Bunin Benor, where Netta discussed her concept of metalinguistic community (based on her ethnographic research on Yiddish heritage language socialization). Despite remembering feeling nervous, Jesse found the concept powerful and struck up a conversation.

We continued to correspond after the conference and later that year Jesse asked Netta if she would be the discussant on a panel about the metalinguistic community concept at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association that year.  While the NHLRC meeting was the first germ of this process, the panel was the productive beginning. It was in a post-talk brunch among the panelists that the book was first proposed with considerable interest. In retrospect, this was a pre-pandemic process that today makes us appreciate the physicality of those conferences and the types of sociality they permit.

 The importance of collaboration – understood as a meeting of equals – also guided our editorial process.  Instead of the inherently hierarchical and at times callous process of blind, anonymous peer review, we utilized open peer review that treated each author as an expert capable of editing and critique.

Authors were each assigned one of their fellow author’s chapters to review and provide feedback on (including our own!), and so everyone was both critic and critiqued.  The authors responded well to this process and appreciated the feedback, even building productive relationships and discussions with one another.  This peer editing was followed by a second round of feedback by the two editors, with particular attention to ensure coherence of voice and harmony across the volume.

Our process assumed the existence of collegial generosity, balancing of humility with expertise, and a desire for mutual aid. We were not disappointed by the volume authors.  In addition, we were able to collaborate with Netta’s research assistants throughout the project, which allowed for new perspectives that enriched the eventual product. Across the board, the project authors, panelists and other collaborators have been enthusiastic in their willingness to participate in the process and we found that transparency in the process facilitated their accountability and the product overall. 

Openness of the Project

For us, openness and collegiality are fundamental to successful academic communities, and our commitment to this ethos manifested in particular practices that we engaged in. We have found that at times the norms and practices of publishing in academia can be unnecessarily opaque to members of academic communities. In this project, one of our goals was to experiment with alternative, more inclusive strategies.  For us, ‘openness’ is a broad term referring to a preference for transparency over opacity among ourselves and with authors regarding process and positionality.

Our collaboration began with a panel organized for the 2018 AAA conference, for which we posted an open call for submissions to public message boards and listservs dedicated to heritage languages and linguistic anthropology.  We received a strong positive response from this strategy and had more submissions than we could include in the eventual book.

This inclusive approach continued as we transitioned into preparing the edited volume.  While we invited the original AAA 2018 panelists to participate in the book project, we knew that not all would be able to stay involved and we would have additional spaces in the volume. We returned again to public listservs and messageboards to request submissions and tried to be as transparent as possible about our process, including anonymizing submissions. We also reached out directly to Wesley Leonard, whom we both greatly respect, to author an afterword – his contribution was the only one not solicited through a more public process.

Selecting chapters was an exciting process given the range of submissions we received. It was also  challenging in terms of achieving diversity in a number of ways, including type of language community (diasporic, indigenous, minoritized), global region, language family and, of course, without sacrificing originality and quality of writing. We were to keep the submitters appraised of this process as it occurred through periodic emails.

Another element of our desire for transparency came in our request for positionality statements from each author.  Instead of beginning with a traditional abstract, our chapters open with each author introducing themselves, their relationship to the community with whom they work and any details about those relationships that they wished to share.  The goals here were not only focused on our ethical commitments to the participants in our respective research projects — but also revealing to the reader a behind the scenes glimpse of how research is done and how ethnographers and participants relate with one another. Our goal, which continues even into this blog post, has been to demystify our process to open up our practices to a wider audience.

Interdisciplinary Conversations

Our work has been deeply interdisciplinary from the start.  Part of this came from our own diverse training: Netta’s academic background is in applied linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and teacher education. She has long been interested in the social justice and social change implications of long-term ethnographic engagement with communities. More recently, she has combined these different interests in an approach she and colleagues have termed applied linguistic anthropology. Jesse came from a cultural anthropology background studying nationalism and religion, but found himself increasingly drawn to language as he realized he had stumbled into a context of language standardization with ethnographically rich processes and ideologies. We brought together our respective theoretical and methodological training to the project, while also bringing in an interdisciplinary ethos – meaning that we respected different perspectives and ways forward in the project.

As we included more authors, these perspectives continued to proliferate and mutually enrich one another.  In retrospect, we believe that having the text’s north star focused on the broad concept of Metalinguistic Community allowed for many types of authors to productively contribute through the lens of their different ethnographic realities. Simultaneously, these varied disciplinary and theoretical perspectives were accompanied by a wide geographic range of field settings.

Though there was consistency in terms of the chapter positionality statements and length, the structure of each chapter became intimately connected to the particulars of a given context – for example, including translations, transcripts, additional historical background, in-depth examples as suited to the foci of each other. Therefore, our job as the volume editors became to synthesize this range of rich material into a cohesive text.

Looking to the Future?

As we look to the future of our book, we hope that it will help to spark conversations among academics and language activists about what constitutes community in relation to language.  Our goal is to create an intellectual environment that recognizes a broader range of possible forms of success for envisioning language communities.  In our minds, these case studies not only describe communities but also provide paths forward for how to plan for the future of their relationships to their particular language.

In an ideal world, the book would contribute to an academic dialogue, in terms of undergraduate and graduate courses, scholarly exchanges, and minoritized language education. For example, we hope that metalinguistic community (and case studies thereof) become a model that is taught alongside other community-focused concepts in linguistic anthropology (for example, speech community, linguistic community). We look forward to other scholars adopting these concepts and building up this work in new and exciting directions, as the book itself has already done.

Embodying the collaborative nature of this book, we have both become advocates of a concept proposed by Wesley Leonard in our afterword: metalinguistic futurities. For many of these languages and communities, there is an intense attachment to the past. Our hope is that the past is not where the story ends. We see our work as part of a bridge to envisioning new futures where minoritized languages become equally understood as pathways to understand and experience the future.

In addition to content-specific impact, we hope that our text will become part of a larger movement in many areas of the academy to shift towards new forms of research and knowledge sharing that center collaboration, openness, and interdisciplinarity.  We understand the democratizing of knowledge to be a task of all disciplines and would be pleased to see our work as part of that more recent turn in academia more broadly.